With locals’ help, Iraqi police round up ISIS supporters
by MATT CETTI-ROBERTS
On a clear, bright winter day in eastern Mosul’s Al Sukar neighborhood, three black painted pickup trucks zoom along dusty streets, high-pitch sirens whining. Men standing in the vehicles’ open backs wave at nearby drivers to clear a path.
The vehicles turn onto a residential street and skid to a halt outside a normal-seeming Mosul home. Vehicle doors fly open and black-clad officers of the Iraqi National Security Service spring into action.
Some officers position themselves outside on the street to keep watch, others rush into the home one man rushes up a set of nearby steps to get a high vantage point to look for any possible trouble. Nearby residents gather, some watch with looks of curiosity, some with concern at this intrusion in to their daily life.
Inside the house, the officers find the man they were looking for. Early 30s. Dressed in brown under a black jacket and hat. NSS officers question the man in his bedroom as fellow cops rifle through the man’s possessions.
The NSS claim to have information that the man told locals not to accept handouts from the Iraqi Security Forces because the ISF are “infidels.” The man is also a supporter of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party and an ISIS sympathizer, the police allege.
The man protests. He says he’s innocent.
The NSS officers find a Ba’athist flag and ISIS paperwork. They lead away the suspect. He’s still protesting as the police pull his hat down over his head and bind his hands with plastic ties. The NSS guides the man to the back of one of the trucks.
“I hate that flag,” says one masked NSS man, a captain from Baghdad. “Saddam killed seven of my cousins.” He holds up a wool hat bearing the symbol of the Ba’ath Party, claiming he found it in the suspect’s house.
It’s mid-February 2017. Eastern Mosul, once an ISIS stronghold, fell to Iraqi Security Forces just a few weeks ago. Since then, officers of the Iraqi National Security Service — Jihaz Al Amin Al Watani in Arabic — have been hard at work in the city’s liberated neighborhoods.
The NSS answers to the Ministry of the Interior. It’s responsible for investigating a wide range of crimes — everything from espionage to fraud. Right now the main concern for the detachment working in eastern Mosul is ISIS sleeper cells, collaborators and militants’ weapons factories.
As a resident of Mosul, Col. Hassham is in charge of the NSS detachment working in the east of the city. He sits in a spotless house just outside Mosul that the NSS has commandeered. The colonel is dressed in black, just like his men are. The only badge on his uniform is that of the NSS.
Hassham smokes thin cigarettes as he juggles between answering the two phones that never stop ringing — he scrawls information from the calls in a small pocket notebook.
“We’ve done a lot in the last few weeks.” Hassham says. Last night, he says, his unit carried out a raid on an ISIS factory and captured homemade rockets and suicide belts.
He pulls out a smart phone and shows me local television news footage of the raid. NSS officers sprint down a street before kicking in a door and running inside. The footage is actually a recording of a television screen. I can hear NSS officers chuckling and poking fun at their colleagues’ tactical errors.
Hassham explains that since the liberation, the NSS and other branches of the ISF have arrested more than 400 suspects in eastern Mosul. Often the implicating information comes from informants. “In the beginning people were scared to come forward, but now they have started to give us information,” he says.
The colonel mentions an example — a local Mosul resident who came forward with information on a group of ISIS supporters in their neighborhood. “Some people are scared of ISIS so they do not want to give up information,” Hassham notes.
He says he’s aware that some snitches might have ulterior motives.
At the moment, the suspects are all men — some teenagers, a few as old as their 50s. “Usually we end up arresting individuals rather than groups,” Hassham says.
The officers from Hassham’s unit are from all over Iraq, one out of 10 from Mosul. The colonel says he would like to recruit more from the local area, and has asked Baghdad to help with that task, but so far no assistance has been forthcoming.
Local knowledge is obviously a benefit when working in Iraq’s second-largest city, “Sometimes they can get lost,” Hassham says of his men.
The colonel says he sees Islamic State as an organized criminals. “Some have no money, so they work for ISIS — and some have also been brainwashed. If we can see they have been brainwashed, we just talk to them. Some of them break down.”
“If he is [nervous], then I taunt him and will say things that provoke a reaction.”
The NSS brings suspects are to the local headquarters for processing and questioning. Specialists — often the same officers who are responsible for oversight and the planning of operations — handle interrogations. If they are satisfied that a detainee is innocent,they will let him go.
If not, they haul the suspect before a court in Qayyarah, where witnesses provide evidence.
The colonel says that he knows ISIS militants fear the NSS. “If we catch them, they will not be able to kill themselves.”
Outside another home, an NSS explosive ordnance specialist checks the catch of a gate before slowly swinging it open. He walks into the garden, scanning all around him as he goes.
His name is Ali. He says he’s dealt with around 200 ISIS improvised explosive devices. Other members of the unit consider him a hero.
He advances cautiously. Other officers follow him, drawing their guns as they enter the garden. Dead leaves and slowly decaying oranges lie everywhere — it’s been a while since anyone has been on the property. The main door to the house is locked with a chain. The officers remove it.
Inside the house lie open sacks of fertilizer. A door leads from the room to a pantry. More chemicals — the raw material for homemade explosives.
In a wide, open hallway, welded metal frames — used by Islamic State to launch rockets — lie on top of the wooden boxes that the militants used to transport the weapons. A wall in the hallway bears the ISIS logo in spray paint.
Metallic parts, machined precisely to fit ISIS specifications, clutter one room. Ali points to bags in what would normally be a bedroom. “C4,” he says.
Having cleared the house, the police spray the name of their agency on the wall outside, to show that they’ve investigated. Another unit will pick up the home’s explosive contents later.
As the ISF advanced, it often left ISIS weapons factories as they were. In many cases, militants left behind IEDs set to go off when someone investigates the building.
NSS officers say they are dealing with around three weapons factories a day, each containing everything from rockets and bombs to suicide belts — and there are still more to find.
None of the raids and visits to the city are routine. The NSS often must to react to new information on the fly, cued either by phone from headquarters or by information from the public.
The words “ISIS lived here” are sprayed on the wall of a home in Al Tahrir district. A message left by Iraqi Security Forces during the liberation of eastern Mosul. Two of the sons from the family that lives in the house were Islamic State fighters. One blew himself up. The other son is the reason the NSS is calling.
In the living room, an old, overweight man wearing jogging pants and a sweatshirt sits in on one of the sofas that line three of the room’s walls. Islamic texts hang on the wall behind him. Prayers play on a radio.
The home smells strongly of paraffin due to the heaters that warm the building. Power is out in much of Mosul.
An officer stands over the elderly man, his pistol drawn as he questions him. The man’s wife says their second son was killed by other ISIS fighters a year ago after he tried to run away from battle. The NSS officers are suspicious, mainly because this particular son’s wife is pregnant …
The NSS is going to take away the elderly man for further questioning. The officers also believe that he encouraged his sons to join Islamic State. A young teenage son puts the shoes on his father’s feet. Unlike other suspects the NSS detains during the day, the old man causes the cops little concern.
There is a debate about which vehicle the police should put him in. Because of his size, it’s not feasible to put him in with other suspects — and even in the empty truck, there’s not enough room for him to sit on the floor.
One officer walks by and notes, in English, “We have a problem! We have a fat terrorist!”
Throngs of shoppers wander through a packed bazaar in the city’s Al Zuhoor district, picking their way between the stalls. Young boys move among the shoppers attempting to sell selfie sticks that they hold aloft, fully extended, like bare flagpoles protruding from the crowd.
The crowd parts. The NSS officers sprint between shoppers. Veiled women pull their children aside and men side-step to avoid the police as they run toward a target.
The officers fan out. Four men and a masked informant — let’s call him “X” — run into a small restaurant. As they enter, an NSS captain shouts for everyone nearby to stay where they are. The shoppers outside the restaurant huddle together, peering into the building.
Inside the dimly-lit restaurant, diners carry on eating their kebabs as they watch the drama unfold. A large grill pumps out a barrier of heat near the entrance. The restaurant worker the officers want, Jamal, 16, was seen in videos burning dead Iraqi soldiers and also jumping on their bodies.
He’s not there.
The informant questions another restaurant worker in a harsh tone — he wants to know where Jamal is.
This time the officers draw a blank. Outside the shop, the informant makes calls on an old Nokia. After a brief discussion, the group moves into another part of the market. Tin roofs and tarpaulin cover the alleys between the stalls.
Narrow rays of sunshine single out individual buyers as they look at the goods on display at the front of the stalls. Some watch the officers as they move. Others ignore the men and just carry on as if the NSS were not there.
Small amounts of greenish stagnant water dribble down an open gutter in the center of the alley as the police swarm into a clothing stall. They surround a stunned-looking man, shouting questions at him as the informant grips his arm.
He’s a friend of Jamal’s. The officers lead him away. They say they have information that the man has been sharing ISIS propaganda on social media.
The NSS retreat from the market and, with the informant in tow, visit Jamal’s family at the boy’s home just a stone’s throw from the market. He’s not there, either, but the officers say they will get him another day.
Outside Jamal’s house, a well-dressed Mosul resident approaches the officers. He has information on ISIS members in the area. After a discussion — and concerned for his safety — the NSS start to shout at him before cuffing and blindfolding him. The idea is to create the illusion that he’s the suspect and not a rat.
They may not have gotten Jamal, but the cops managed to score another source.
Twenty minutes after the NSS leave the area, two ISIS fighters wearing suicide vests target the Al Zuhoor market. No one knows if the officers were the target, but 12 people die and a further 30 are injured.
As the day’s operations go on, the NSS picks up and drops off several more informers. But X, the man who was with the NSS in the market, stays and also contributes to several more raids. He removes his mask as the convoy starts to move back to headquarters. His hair is matted and flattened with sweat.
“This is not revenge, not personal,” he says. “This is for the innocent people of Mosul. I do it to keep my family safe.”
X was a member of the Iraqi police until 2007. He was targeted and threatened by ISIS when the group took Mosul.
“I’m sorry to see my country in such a state.” X says. He explains that he fully understands the dangers he faces as an informant.” But he’s adamant that he will not let “them” — ISIS — control him. “I am sacrificing myself for my country,” he says.
On his list are another six people he knows well. “They are all from my neighborhood. I’ve known them for a long time — way before ISIS came.”
The convoy pauses and X jumps out. Without looking back, he disappears into a crowd of shoppers. The NSS officers say they take great care to disguise the identities of their informants, even giving them masks and sometimes dressing them in security service uniforms.
The NSS team is in the city for roughly five hours. The officers keep up a blistering pace — one raid seems to blur into the next.
Suspects NSS grabs today include two suspected ISIS fighters; a man the cops suspect of having worked for ISIS social media and one man, who the police seized at the health clinic where he works, whom the NSS accuses of providing statistics on civilian casualties to militants outside the liberated areas.
The police also take the clinic worker’s car. It’s in poor shape and breaks down twice along the road.
Back at the NSS headquarters outside the city, the cops unload the suspects and lead them to the garden of a house within the compound. The detainees kneel — except for the fat man. He gets a chair. The NSS registers each man.
According to Hassham, today is a typical day. “Some of the suspects today were fighters, and we have intelligence that one of the men we arrested today was selling Yazidi slaves.”
An officer named Abid — who comes from Mosul — says he’s happy to see fellow Mosul residents giving up information. “They do it for Iraq,” he says.
“We are brothers from all over Iraq. We have only one target — I.S. We saved many people by making arrests today.”